Dubliners, love your city and it will reward you
Trevor White: Too many people think this vibrant city is an expensive, crime-ridden kip
Illustration: Fuchsia Mac Aree
“For Dublin can be heaven with coffee at eleven and a stroll in Stephen’s Green.” – from the Dublin Saunter
I love Dublin. You may also have this condition. It’s called civic pride. Broadly defined as pride in your city, or the affection that a place has for itself, civic pride is a public good. Difficult to measure and harder still to influence, we all know what it looks like: clean streets, active retirement groups, lively public meetings. The absence of civic pride looks like broken windows.
Rejecting the nastier elements of nationalism, pride of place is closer to the global citizenship that may yet save us than the nation-state loyalty that nearly wiped us out. (In many countries, the fight against climate change is now being led by cities.)
And social capital – a close relation of civic pride – can revitalise battered economies. A Gallup study in 2010 demonstrated that cities with higher levels of community attachment emerged from recession more quickly.
In other words, it pays to stick together.
That’s not always easy in my hometown, where locals often doubt that I am from Dublin. “Yeah, but where are you really from?”
There is no right answer. I am some sort of blow-in; English, perhaps, or American; at the very least a southsider. I may be from Dublin, but I am not of Dublin.
You see, the capital is divided from the rest of the country – which despises Dublin – but also from itself. There are many Dubliners who are simply too small to get over a river. For them, the only “real” Dub is a northsider or a southsider.
Dublin-born and bred, I grew up on the mean streets of Ballsbridge. For the past two decades, the dirty old town has been my subject, first at the Dubliner magazine and now in the Little Museum of Dublin.
Most of the time it doesn’t feel like work. I owe something to the city, and possibly everything. Mind you, when I left here in the 1990s, first for London and then New York, I couldn’t get out fast enough.
Do you know what I mean? Probably. Many Irish people think, or are told to think, that Dublin is a dirty, expensive, crime-ridden kip.
Ideas for a better Dublin: Share your suggestions
In the museum our education programme is called I Love Dublin. Those are the three hardest words to say in Hiberno-English. Even liking the city is a challenge for many of us, despite its culture, its heritage, its warmth and its conversation.
The poet Louis MacNeice put it well when he wrote about “The catcalls and the pain/The glamour of her squalor/The bravado of her talk”.
The Little Museum tries to capture that spirit in a collection created by public donation. Irish people sometimes wonder why we bother.
A few years ago a nationwide poll revealed that only 24 per cent of Irish people have any emotional connection to a city that is synonymous with the Dubs, the English, Eamon Dunphy, homelessness and Copper Face Jacks. Some of these are very bad things.
But a certain type of Dub is okay, as a taxi driver in Limerick assured me last week. “The real Dub,” he said, consciously or unconsciously snubbing his client.
Bigotry features in any account of the Irish experience, alongside Famine, WB Yeats and smartphone addiction. And the capital has long fuelled resentment, or, as Yeats put it, “the daily spite of this unmannerly town”.
There are obvious reasons for the hatred of Dublin, such as colonialism, and less obvious ones, such as the media’s failure to acknowledge that foreign investment lost to Dublin is often lost to Ireland, which would be banjaxed without a strong capital.
If slating Dublin is the national sport, lazy journalists and broadcasters are partly to blame. They exacerbate the northside-southside and urban-rural divides with crass debates that produce more heat than light. See also: the chippiness of rural Ireland. See also: Dubliners.
Sometimes we are awful gobdaws. I’m thinking of middle-class southsiders who colonise an easily-defensible part of the countryside, like Roundstone in Connemara. The locals call it G4.
Over-centralisation of power has been a problem since the foundation of the State. As a result, local government is pitifully weak. That’s why property tax bills are four times higher in parts of Dublin than in rural Ireland, and why we subsidise the rest of you. (You’re welcome.)
It is why children are homeless in Dublin. It is also why the city still does not have a directly elected mayor, despite the fact that three-quarters of Dubliners want the post to be created. If there is a gap in Irish politics, it is for a party devoted to the interests of the capital.
There is still good cause for loving where you live, and Dublin can be heaven. Just ask a tourist. It shouldn’t be hard to find one. India, with a population of 1.3 billion people, welcomed nearly 10 million visitors last year. So did Ireland.
Most visitors regard Dublin as an intimate, handsome capital with a rich history, a vibrant culture, good restaurants and a kickass bar scene. They cannot believe that artists (okay, some artists) pay no tax, and they admire the freedoms that many Dubliners take for granted.
Further, they like the casual charm of the place, and they love the friendly people. In fact, you are the highlight of their trip. And the reason you find this so hard to believe is because you’re Irish.
Cynicism is a local speciality, as Irish as freckles and doner kebabs, but sometimes scepticism works against us, and there are compelling reasons for giving Dublin a second chance.
Pride of place is good for business. A stepping stone to larger attachments and higher stakes, it brings us closer to a proper understanding of who we really are. Indeed, civic pride could yet serve as a bulwark against the excesses of traditional nationalism, and as an accomplice to the global citizenship that must yet emerge.
So here, then, is a proposition. It won’t cost you anything, but it might make you happier and it may just change your life. Make room in your heart for Dublin.
Trevor White is director of the Little Museum of Dublin
Each of the proposals in this “Capital Ideas” series has been put to a group of three experts for an initial “back of an envelope” evaluation. They are: Frances Ruane, former director of the Economic and Social Research Institute; Caroline Spillane, director general of Engineers Ireland; and Cliff Taylor, Irish Times economics columnist.
It is not a case of Dublin-versus-rest-of-country. The two are complementary and depend on each other to optimise the benefits for the whole country. Urban populations will continue to grow into the future, and their connectivity to the rural hinterland is absolutely critical, particularly in Ireland which is a small country and both populations are closely interrelated.
Taking pride in our city and developing a sense of community to support it requires little by way of resources but a real mind-set change in viewing the city in its totality as a place to live and work. It reflects people wanting to live in the city and not dreaming of getting to the suburbs as soon as they can. Many want a home, and not necessarily a house. Our new immigrant population has helped raise awareness of just what a great city Dublin is and how much better it could be if we keep the city centre populated with families. To succeed, the dereliction in the city centre must be reduced systematically, and the vacant site tax can help deliver on this objective. This requires some cross institutional cooperation and a minimal budget.
I’m not sure people have as little pride in Dublin as Trevor says. Dublin is a much more diverse and interesting place than when I was first looking for work in the early 1980s and has many more and varied employment opportunities. And the Dubs win a lot more matches now too.
This idea costs nothing, and there is a benefit to people being proud of where they live. Local communities coming together as a result can be powerful – while lack of any attachment can be corrosive. But let’s not go hiring any consultants on this one.